NEW YORK (AFP) - NASCAR driver Tony Stewart withdrew from an event on Sunday after striking and killing a sprint car driver who had left his damaged vehicle mid-race to confront the motorsport veteran on Saturday night.
Stewart, who is one of the most popular drivers in American stock car racing, has pulled out of Sunday's National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) race at Watkins Glen International, Stewart-Haas Racing announced on Sunday morning.
"This is an unbelievable tragedy, and our hearts go out to Kevin and his family," said Greg Zipadelli vice-president of Stewart-Haas Racing.
"This is a very tough and emotional time for everybody - his family and our family at Stewart-Haas and Tony Stewart. We feel that as a group Tony will not drive today."
Track officials identified the victim as 20-year-old American Kevin Ward Jr.
The 43-year-old Stewart was questioned by police and released.
No charges have been laid but the police investigation continues. Police said Stewart is cooperating.
The Ontario County Sheriff's Department said in a news release the incident happened near turn two at the halfway point of a 25-lap Lucas Oil Super Sprint Features race.
The lower-level racing event was being held on a dirt track on the eve of a NASCAR race at Watkins Glen where Stewart was scheduled to compete on Sunday.
Stewart first bumped Ward's car and knocked it out of the race, which was being held at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York.
On his next time around the track Stewart's vehicle then collided with Ward who had gotten out of his car and was walking down the track pointing his finger in the direction of Stewart.
As the car passed by Ward, it appeared to fishtail, hitting Ward and dragging him along the track for several metres.
Ward, of Port Leyden, New York, began competing in Go Kart racing at the age of four in 1998. He finished second in his first race and went on to claim 250 feature wins in only eight years of Go Kart competition. Ward began sprint car racing in 2010 and won his first career sprint car feature in June 2011.
NASCAR released a statement on the accident, saying, "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends and fellow competitors of Kevin Ward Jr. We support Tony Stewart's decision to miss today's race, and we will continue to respect the process and timeline of the local authorities and will continue to monitor this situation moving forward."
Stewart had qualified 13th for the 90-lap NASCAR event at Watkins Glen. He is a record five-time race winner at the 3.9km road course.
NASCAR is the largest sanctioning body of stock car racing in America.
When Stewart competed in an event at Canandaigua in July 2013, he caused a crash that involved 15 drivers.